I'm not sure when, exactly, my fear of flying started. It may have been long ago when, as a child, I asked my mom on a flight to Hawaii, "Mom, is the plane going to crash?"
Healthy Living is brought to you by:
My mom, preoccupied with keeping me and my three brothers from driving the whole plane crazy, absentmindedly said, "I don't know, dear." You don't KNOW? That's not the answer I was looking for. The fact that I remember this conversation some 30 years later must mean something.
To get to the root of--and perhaps ease--my fear of flying I talked to Dr. Alice Rogan, adjunct psychiatrist at Legacy Emanuel Hospital in Portland, Ore.
What Causes It?
Aside from normal turbulence and flight delays, I've never had a "bad" flying experience, so I can't pinpoint a reason why I should be afraid to fly when I'm fine with other modes of transportation. While I suspect my mom may have unwittingly contributed to my fear, "There is no one single cause for fear of flying," says Dr. Rogan. "A bad experience can certainly set this off. I think a basic fear has to do with the realization that it is really not 'normal' for people to fly." True, I do wonder how on earth a plane filled with people and luggage and food carts can get off the ground. Honestly, I don't want to know how it works--I'm just glad it does. Unless there's an accident - but that's what I'm trying not to think about.
Is It a Control Issue?
I'll admit it: I'm a control freak. I have a cow when my husband tailgates the car in front of us, but if I'm driving it's OK because I'm the one behind the wheel. I check out the pilots when I board a plane, visually assessing how smart and in command they look (it doesn't hurt if they're handsome, too). Then I fasten my seatbelt and cross my fingers.
"Certainly you have to put your trust in the pilot's skills, and hope that he doesn't want to crash as much as you do," says Dr. Rogan. "Putting faith in someone else's ability does mean you have to 'hand over' control, have faith in a stranger you really don't know at all, that he/she has your and everyone else's (including their own) interest and safety [in mind]."
How Can I Relax?
I'm what I call a "freaky flier." I get jittery the day before a flight. My stomach does flip-flops. I can't sleep on a plane, even if it's going overseas. I can barely focus enough to read, and I don't like to wear headphones because I'm afraid I'll miss an important announcement. My claustrophobia doesn't help, either. I get a little panicked when I can't see the ground, so I don't like clouds, and don't even ask me to close the shades during a movie. Call me crazy, but I like to look for "emergency landing" areas.
To help me relax, Dr. Rogan suggests using techniques similar to those that can help you sleep. "Deep breathing (very rhythmic--you have to count and focus on your own breath), progressive muscle relaxation, visualization of a peaceful scene--all these things can help," she says. Medications may have an undesirable effect, she says, but sometimes antihistamines or even aspirin can help you relax or even sleep. Or, a little common sense: "One person I know schedules their flights very early in the morning--6am or so--so that they have to get up at 3:30 to make it to the airport on time. By the time they get on board, they're already tired, and usually fall asleep before takeoff." Now, there's an idea I hadn't thought of!
So, What to Do?
Dr. Rogan says if I really want to get over my fear of flying, the best way is through a therapy technique called progressive desensitization. "In this kind of behavioral treatment, you build a hierarchy of fears, all of which eventually lead up to getting on the plane," she says. "The first step might be thinking about a trip you want to take. The next step might be imagining all the ways you might get there, and concluding [that] flying is the only way. Next step--imagining booking a ticket, etc. It might take 10 steps or 20, depending on how incrementally small you need them to be to tolerate the anxiety in your mind." Another technique is exposure--lots and lots of exposure to flying experiences. While this isn't exactly in my budget, I do find that the more often I fly, the better I do.
The Bottom Line
I love to travel, and I realize that driving to New York or sailing to Europe isn't the best way to get there. My brain tells me that flying is the safest, fastest transportation option. If I want to travel, I'm going to have to suck it up and get over my fear. Now that I have some tools, I'm going to try using them on my next flight, which is next month. After all, it's no fun being miserable on my way to a fabulous vacation.
But just in case, I'm keeping my fingers crossed for a handsome, smart-looking pilot.
About the Author
Jennifer Schatz has been an editor with myRegence since 2005. Her background is in journalism, and she has been a web writer and editor for the past decade. Her passions are dining out and working out, which don’t always go hand in hand. She and her husband live in Portland, Ore., where they are raising their daughter, Josie, who loves books almost as much as her mom does.